The Washington State Cougars look for their first win under new head coach Mike Leach as they host the Eastern Washington Eagles on Saturday at noon PT. EWU has already defeated one FBS opponent this season, taking down Idaho in the Kibbie Dome last Saturday.
The Eagles posted the sixth-most total yards in all of FCS in 2011, and the most in the Big Sky Conference. They weren't necessarily explosive, averaging 6.1 yards per play, but they were efficient. Their offensive effectiveness was on display as they nearly upset the Washington Huskies in Week 1 last year.
One of the most important cogs in that offense has since departed. Bo Levi Mitchell, who threw all but six of the 509 pass attempts EWU took last year, graduated. Mitchell transferred in from SMU, and is famous among Cougar lore for engineering WSU's comeback in their lone victory of 2009 by throwing two pick-sixes in the second half.
Eastern does return a number of other skill players, and has added another transfer quarterback. They should be able to perform well in the Big Sky once again, and there are guys on the team that are dangerous on any college football level.
EWU head coach Beau Baldwin went to the SMU-transfer well once again to find his starting quarterback for 2012. Senior Kyle Padron spent his first three seasons with the Mustangs, including leading them to a victory over WSU in 2010.
Padron put up big numbers as the starter at SMU. In his sophomore year he completed 59% of his passes for 3,828 yards and 31 touchdowns in June Jones' run-and-shoot offense.
The similarities between Mitchell and Padron are kind of erie. Mitchell lost his starting job to Padron after an injury, and transferred to EWU. Padron suffered the same fate last season after a number of ailments kept him out of the lineup. He went on to throw only 20 passes in 2011.
Eastern is hoping they see the Padron of his freshman and sophomore years. He struggled with accuracy in the opener against Idaho, completing just 13 of 33 attempts. He did make the completions count, as he racked up 260 yards for 7.9 yards per attempt.
The 6'4, 233-pound Padron does show some mobility, but he is not on the same level of BYU's Riley Nelson in terms of gaining yards on the ground.
Click the jump for previews of the receivers, running backs, and offensive line.
The Eagles return their top two wideouts from a year ago, and both were named to the FCS Preseason All-America Team.
Nicholas Edwards, who has good size at 6'3, 200 pounds, caught 95 passes for 1,250 yards and 19 touchdowns in 2011. The four-year starter, who did not hold a single scholarship offer out of high school, has 178 catches for 2,198 yards and 29 touchdowns for his career.
Edwards only caught two passes on nine targets against the Vandals, but he still made big plays, going for 62 yards on the day.
The second-half of EWU's All-American duo is senior Greg Herd. Also listed at 6'3, 200, the combination of he and Edwards may give WSU's smaller corners some trouble.
Herd had 67 catches for 1,022 yards and seven touchdowns last season. He opened the year with a pedestrian six-target, two-catch, 28-yard performance against Idaho.
Oh, and by the way, the Eagles have one more preseason All-American at wideout, and he missed all of 2011 while recovering from injury.
While the Vandals were paying significant attention to Herd and Edwards, a Brandon Kaufman burned them for five catches on seven targets and 148 yards last Saturday.
The junior Kaufman caught 76 passes for 1,214 yards his sophomore season, but redshirted last year after missing the final eight games with a broken hand. He is even bigger that Herd and Edwards, listed at 6'5 and 215.
Padron certainly has a talented corps of receivers, and the size alone makes them a difficult group to guard.
Eastern running backs only rushed the ball on 29% of the team's total offensive plays in 2011. That jumped to 48% in their season-opening victory over Idaho. Those extra carries could have come from a combination of three things:
1) They were up for most of the game, and wanted to milk the clock.
2) They were playing a higher-level opponent and wanted to shorten the game.
3) They were breaking in a new quarterback, and didn't want to put the game squarely on his shoulders.
It was probably the first option more than the other three, as the Eagles showed they were willing to throw the ball often against Washington to start last season. However, don't be surprised to see them run the ball a little more because of option two.
The Eags don't necessarily have a feature back that gets the vast majority of carries, they seem to spread it out between two primary guys.
Jordan Talley returns as the team's leading rusher from a year ago, when he carried 120 times for 455 yards, good for just 3.8 yards per carry (YPC). He got the call a team-leading 18 times against Idaho and put up just 63 yards.
Quincy Forte has been much more effective in his touches. He rushed 54 times for 284 yards in 2011, good for 5.3 YPC. In the opener he carried 17 times for 66 yards and a touchdown. Also look for Forte to be more of a threat to catch the ball out of the backfield.
The EWU ground game isn't particularly effective, and they are a pass-first offense. Forte is likely the more explosive of the two backs, so the defense should be more aware of the big play when he is on the field.
Three starters return from the 2011 squad, with tackle Gabriel Jackson and center Chris Powers departing.
It's hard to find total sacks allowed for an FCS team. Looking at Mitchell's rushing stats, he carried the ball 55 times. Since he wasn't a particularly mobile guy, it's probably safe to assume a large number of those were sacks. Mitchell's negative running plays totaled 186 yards, so an estimation of about 30 sacks might be accurate.
30 sacks in about 533 dropbacks is not a bad total at all.
With running backs averaging just over four yards a carry last season, and under four against Idaho, it is safe to say that run blocking is not a strength for this team. Then again, they don't have to use those skills very often.
Just a reminder that all of these statistics need to come with a grain of salt. With the exception of Padron, they were all compiled, for the most part, against FCS opponents. However, that the Eagles have been able to do well against their peers is a far cry from the Big Sky Idaho State team that WSU demolished a year ago. Don't expect another 64-21 walkover. For the record, Eastern also handed that Bengals team a 45-14 beat down.
The Cougars have their weaknesses on defense and Eastern should be able to put up some points. But will it be enough to shock WSU at home? That is the real question.
Stats came from NCAA.org and cfbstats.com. Stick with CougCenter all week for coverage of Mike Leach's Martin Stadium debut. I'll be back tomorrow with a preview of the EWU defense.